PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Of the two voices, Roland’s is the less compelling and convincing. He is cold, acquisitive and, by his own account, intellectual and literary; to match this, his diaries needed to be a feat of voice, to sound like The Portrait of a Lady’s Gilbert Osmond, looter of words as well of artworks and people; or perhaps, as he immerses himself in wartime Britain, to take on the orotund tones of the political diarist Alan Clark. But Bouley writes in the same 21st-century style as the rest of the book: no speech marks, few semicolons, short sentences and contemporary vocabulary choices...The style is so limpid it could almost be translation, and in fact the more we read of this American/European hero, the more Chinese he begins to seem ... The spring of a western-style plot, that Lucy is Roland’s daughter, is told to us almost at once. The romantic heart of the novel – who does Lilia truly love? – is also brushed past or told by inference ... Family members (Lilia’s younger sisters, her ambitious daughter Molly) have a way of abruptly emerging from the shadows bearing their complete and fascinating life stories then exiting again without comment. Other characters (two of Lilia’s husbands, for example) remain barely developed. There are sudden irruptions of historical drama ... Lilia’s stories, though, as the one above shows, are salty, funny, well observed, and have an ironic, tragic edge. As she arranges them into a dense, crowded Chinese tapestry of characters, personal myths and history, her humanity and largeness of mind are also revealed. And as all those bleak edges and ironic gaps are laid together, so a pulled thread of grief is revealed in the weave: the unsolvable mystery of why Lucy died. Li demonstrates in this haunting novel that there is more than one way to tell the story of a person’s becoming, and that multiple narratives can work just as well as singular ones to help us understand the nature of grief.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)In 2014, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was greeted as a new sort of writing. Like Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Karl Ove Knausgård’s Boyhood, published in English in the same year, this was autofiction: a novel that blurred the boundaries with memoir ... Offill’s book was dramatically pared down to taut, tight paragraphs trapped in the present tense, each packed with quirky observation and fantastic one liners. It was sold as \'not so much a novel as the X-ray of one\'. Six years later, Knausgård and Cusk have finished their sequences of novels; autofiction is so well established that it is being attacked for its solipsism; and Offill has finally sculpted another book, this time in even shorter paragraphs ... Because Lizzie seems so unnervingly close to us, and because the bad news is seen glancingly, the way we might look at the sun, all of this feels real and near ... there is no comforting fiction in this book at all, only terrifying facts about ecological disaster and encroaching fascism. Perhaps all our clever chat, like all Lizzie’s talk, will get us nowhere. It’s an alarming prospect – reading Weather made me grind my teeth at night, just like its narrator – but it is certainly a brilliant exemplar for the autofictional method. Offill pulls us in close in order to make us worry about things outside us; mirrors the self to show us what we are selfishly ignoring.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Again, Garner shows us her facility for recording speech and, even more remarkably, the \'waves of emotion and private mental activity\' of group listening, now honed to almost hallucinogenic clarity ... Here, too, are Garner’s characteristic sympathies: with working people, immigrants, mothers ... And here, in every scene, is Garner herself, thirsty for coffee, wisecracking, observant: her very own USP ... This is a communal, painful effort: the lawyers and jury are engaged in the difficult understanding that a man murdered his children, and so is Garner ... This careful record of the mind and its workings, of the strange dance we take toward truth, makes the narrative compelling and the story fresh through all the trials and retrials. It also insists that Farquharson and his children belong to all of us ... It’s an elegiac farewell, and indeed the whole book feels final, elegiac – perhaps because for all the horror, it is so elegantly and calmly written; perhaps because This House of Grief completes so many arcs begun in Garner’s previous works; perhaps because it is impossible to imagine it being done better.
PositiveThe GuardianThere is no moment in Grand Union when we are not entertained, or doubt that we are in the company of one of our best contemporary writers. The only real regrets come when Smith herself seems to doubt – or perhaps is overwhelmed by the many claims made on her identity ... The moments when Smith leans in authorially to tell us something have grace. The irruptions of metafiction, by contrast, are baffling ... It’s frustrating because an unconstrained Smith in full flight across the page is such a magnificent sight.
RaveThe GuardianNormal People, written in barely a year since her debut, is set mainly in the same shadowy, smoky, studenty Dublin, has the same witty dialogue and delicately observed play of often anxious feeling, and the same interludes of startlingly graphic, passionately intimate sex. It, too, is astonishingly fresh: in fact, when these books are shelved together in the future, it may seem that Normal People is the earlier work ... Normal People may not be about being young right now, but better than that, it shows what it is to be young and in love at any time. It may not be absolutely contemporary, but it is a future classic.
PanThe Guardian\"[The novel\'s] time shifts become progressively exhausting because both places are so crowded with characters and dialogue. It’s hectic, detailed, expository dialogue, too ... Unsheltered is researched as carefully as any Cather novel, but there is no space here: Kingsolver is so anxious to demonstrate and teach that neither characters nor story can breathe for themselves.\
MixedThe Guardian\"...there is a self-consciousness to all this, a riddling, hall-of-mirrors element that is the reverse of the radical humility of the first two books. And it creates, simply, distance. Faye keeps secrets from us now: where she is, what has happened in the – seemingly considerable – time that has passed since the last book...It feels like a betrayal, or a snub ... There are many remarkable moments in Kudos; it is a fine novel that deserves to receive – and probably will, given the limping nature of literary kudos – a heap of awards in recognition of the vast achievement of the trilogy. Nevertheless, I was sorry it ended here.\
PositiveThe GuardianOur new hero, Paul, places himself nearer the truth-telling memoirist Barnes than his fictional predecessor, the fascinatingly unreliable Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending. Paul begins, as if in essay form, with a wide, philosophical question: \'Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less, and suffer the less?\' He constantly keeps one eye on historical context, and is especially astute on architectural detail and the way money is spent; and he is always intent on making himself ordinary, a mere example of humanity. As such, he is anxiously alert not only to the problems of self-heroising, but its opposite: \'There is the danger of being retrospectively anti-heroic: making yourself out to have behaved worse than you actually did can be a form of self-praise\' ... All this means that the exquisite moments—and there are many—in The Only Story come from its psychological acuity, especially about how we remember. In Paul’s narrative, experiences deconstruct themselves and personalities decay in a devastatingly convincing way ... It all seems terribly sad, and horribly true: a definitive account of how romantic love becomes trapped in its own frame and empties itself of colour and meaning.
Susan Sontag, Ed. by Benjamin Taylor
MixedThe GuardianSontag, was not, though, as her editor Benjamin Taylor admits in the introduction to this gathering of stories from across her career, a committed short-story writer. She turned to the form in order to evade what Chekhov called ‘autobiographophobia’, which Taylor uses to mean the fear of writing and reflecting directly about one’s life … None of these pieces, though, is a short story in the Chekhovian sense — a narrative built on images and speech; a glimpse into a deeply imagined, apparently authentic world — because Sontag frees none of her characters. Rather, they are bent to her purposes, illustrations of a wider point … Sontag’s stories, in contrast, speak loudly and lengthily in her own grand voice, which sounds bombastic and antique.
Edward St. Aubyn
PositiveThe GuardianIn Lear, only Lear changes; everyone else stays two-dimensional, as frightful (Goneril and Regan) or virtuous (Cordelia) as they are at the start. St Aubyn chooses to maintain this intense, singular focus. His Lear is Henry Dunbar, the head of an international media cooperation – like Conrad Black or Rupert Murdoch – and is brilliantly awful ...other characters, even minor ones, are also wittily and cleverly updated ... St Aubyn has always been a surprising writer with the power to shock: here, we know the plot already, and clever though Dr Bob’s machinations are, we can never suspect that things will end well for him ... St Aubyn’s Dunbar, in contrast, simply recounts the tale of how painful it is when an old, powerful man loses everything. It’s still a sad story, but it is also a more limited one than this immensely talented writer can tell.
RaveThe GuardianThe pieces in the collection follow wayward, unnerving courses: each beginning in a place where we think we are comfortable, then taking us somewhere other ... None of these stories offers any redemption, personal or global: instead they say bluntly, insistently, in Hall’s smooth, clear prose, 'Look, this darkness is here' ... Great short stories are the shape of themselves: image, voice and plot dovetailed to the chosen form. Hall’s stories are vixen-shaped: urban and rural, feral and natural, female and stinky, beautiful and tough. Like Mrs Fox herself, they slide quietly into view and stare at us with their citrine eyes; exceptional, compelling, frightening and authentic.
MixedThe GuardianRather than turning human-sized stories into myths, Tóibín sets out to humanise the myths of the house of Atreus...all this results in a devastatingly human story … We don’t know this maybe-bronze-age, maybe-Homeric world at all, or how its society is supposed to work, and as Orestes wanders ever more confusingly over it, bumping occasionally into Goya-esque scenes of violence, we begin to wonder if Tóibín does either...There are irrigation schemes and settlements and slaves and guards and infinite supplies of food – where do they all come from, and where do they go? It starts to feel not so much mythic as random, or, worse, a bit CGI, a bit too close to Game of Thrones.
MixedThe GuardianThis alienation is very much of the literary moment. As the narrator wanders musingly around the portent-stuffed resort, you sometimes wonder if she is a pastiche of Lydia Davis taking a nasty holiday in a Deborah Levy novel. But it makes her miserable, unable to get on with her relationship with her new man, Yvan, who is by some distance the warmest and most natural character in the book. It also makes her a useless detective. In Greece, she can’t bear to ask direct questions, and even when a murder plot worthy of Inspector Montalbano lays itself out plainly before her ... In the end, Kitamura’s protagonist is a smart, accomplished, contemporary version of that ancient literary figure, the unreliable narrator ... A Separation leaves you intrigued, impressed, but also artfully irritated.
PositiveThe GuardianHer limpid, rhythmic prose, sumptuous with detail, isn’t exclusive to west coast towns: it can be aroused by all sorts of American landscapes provided they are past their best. Decay, both moral and corporal, is Moshfegh’s favourite trope and favourite subject ... Mould grows best in closed areas. The miserable towns and half-built apartment blocks provide part of this containment; maze-like plots the remainder. For Moshfegh’s protagonists often retain hopes of fulfilment, albeit generally of the vaguest sort, and powered by these, they set out on bizarre quests ... The conventional thriller shape of Eileen has brought Moshfegh money and popularity. On an artistic level, though, it also allowed some air and light into the dank leaf-mould of her imaginative world. At the end of this absorbing, exhausting and slippery volume, you may well find yourself longing for some of Eileen’s resolution, however conventional such a plot shape may be.
RaveThe Guardian[The fetus] sounds rather like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita; the same grand, elegiac tone; the same infinite knowledge of history and English poetry, the same covetous, obsessively physical eye ... McEwan makes the story over into a brutally effective howdunnit, magnificently strong on the details of murder ... a consciously late, deliberately elegiac, masterpiece, a calling together of everything McEwan has learned and knows about his art.
RaveThe GuardianUnder its smooth, naturalistic surfaces, Exposure has a tightly wrought plot, gripping as any thriller. But it is the union of this plot with complex, challenging characters that makes the book such a surprising and fulfilling read ... As its first scene promises, it is a dream-like book, but not exactly a reverie: more like one of those visceral dreams bobbing with household objects and Freudian faces that will haunt you for months, if not years.
PositiveThe GuardianEdna O’Brien apparently researched this novel carefully: it shows in the variety of stories and range of reference and facts. It does not show, however, in authenticity of character and voice: these spring from her own vast experience and writerly imagination. None of the moments O’Brien adapts or borrows, even from Kafka and Shakespeare, is as piercing as the moments she invents herself.